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September 23, 2012

William Horsley: BBC to host global editors' meeting on life-and-death issues

William Horsley  is the international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield and a former BBC foreign correspondent.  

The United Nations has recognised the growing patterns of violence and legal harassment of journalists as a pressing problem which deprives whole populations of the right to reliable information. It also negates much of the UN’s work for peace and human rights.

A series of measures aimed at stopping the targeted killing and routine intimidation of journalists in many countries is being developed by the UN Human Rights Council, the world’s most important human rights forum, and through a UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity coordinated by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization. 

Is it something that editors and journalists need to know about? You bet it is.

The UN’s Action Plan includes efforts to strengthen international monitoring, UN political and legal interventions and physical protection programmes such as those being tried in Colombia and Mexico, two places where many journalists live in constant fear for their life.

But the media will have to use this chance or lose it. Either the world’s major news organisations speak out now to insist on better protection for journalists or they may find the moment has passed. In that case the enemies of free speech and real journalism will think they have won.

The deadly facts about the rising dangers of journalism are not in dispute. Every news organisation with global reach has experience of its staff members, stringers, fixers or sources of information being threatened, attacked or even killed.

Christiane Amanpour of CNN and ABC told Vanity Fair that “the most chilling change since I’ve been doing this job is that, whether it’s in Syria, Libya, Russia or the Philippines, journalists are being targeted. They want to shut us up. Look at the statistics. They’re killing the messenger.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that already this year 63 journalists in 19 countries have died violently, mostly as the victims of targeted killings aimed at silencing them and deterring others.

As ever, journalists are being killed in war zones. In January, when Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik died in a Syrian army attack on Homs, the world took notice. But at least 16 others, many of them freelancers, have been killed in Syria since the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik.

UNESCO, which has a special mandate for media freedom, also highlights the fact that more journalists are being killed in lawless parts of the world on the orders of ruthless drugs barons, warlords and dark political forces.

In that category are much-publicised cases like that of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in Moscow in 2006, and Lasantha Wickrematunge who predicted his own death in 2009 in an editorial published posthumously in his own Sri Lankan newspaper.

Then there was the horrific murder of “the Laredo Girl”, María Elizabeth Macías Castro, kidnapped and beheaded in Mexico a year ago to dissuade others from reporting on the powerful local drugs cartels, as she bravely did.  

In none of those cases have the perpetrators been brought to justice.  

For each fatality, many more lives are being traumatised, limbs smashed and careers cut short. Lara Logan, a CBS TV reporter, was sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Russian investigative journalist Mikael Beketov and Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat had their hands and limbs smashed.

The UN now accepts that a “culture of impunity” protects the killers of journalists in nine out of every 10 cases worldwide, making a mockery of the rule of law and encouraging further violence.

In the face of all this, the world’s leading media organisations cannot act as if it is somebody else’s problem. Hostile environment training for journalists and a proper ‘duty of care’ by media employers are essential.

But those are not enough.

At this critical moment, the UN is asking the media to help make its Action Plan work on the ground and better enforce protections under international law.

With this in mind, the BBC College of Journalism, together with the Centre for Freedom of the Media of the University of Sheffield, is organising an exceptional meeting of global media editors in London on 18 October. The gathering will allow editors from media groups in every region of the world who have responsibility for managing global news operations, together with frontline journalists, to focus on how best to respond to the UN’s request to engage with the Action Plan.

The media, along with other stakeholders, can come forward with proposals to support the Plan at a special meeting in Vienna on 22 and 23 November.    

In a parallel move, a resolution on journalists’ safety is being negotiated at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Austria, with backing from a core group of states from every region of the world, will ask the Council to approve that resolution by 28 September. The draft resolution invites all UN states to condemn acts of violence and intimidation against journalists and ensure that violent crimes against them are properly punished. It outlines measures required to create a safe environment and encourages protection programmes and more effective coordination at UN level.

The passing of the resolution would be an important political moment, yet strangely the big media have so far seemed to be behind the curve on this, while leading NGOs like the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders have been fighting hard on behalf of media workers in danger. Now that may be changing.

Mark Thompson, the outgoing BBC director-general, told the Royal Television Society last March that the most disturbing aspect of his eight years in the job had been the increase in the threats that freedom of speech and good journalism face around the world. He said his “blackest moments” were the deaths of colleagues in Somalia and Afghanistan and the months of Alan Johnson’s captivity in Gaza.

Peter Horrocks, head of BBC Global News, spoke to the World Media Summit in Moscow in July about an “unprecedented threat to independent news from around the world”. He called on the global community of broadcasters and journalists to condemn and urge an end to the harassment of journalists and censorship through intimidation. 

And in November 2011 more than 400 representatives of global news organisations who met at the annual News Xchange convention adopted a resolution demanding that national governments bring the killers of journalists to justice. They also committed themselves to creating “maximum exposure” for every death.

There have been many setbacks before. The high hopes that accompanied the unanimous adoption in 2006 of UN Security Council Resolution 1738, calling on all states to prevent attacks on journalists in conflict zones and to punish them as war crimes, have faded. The resolution had little or no effect on the number of attacks in Syria, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Iraq and many other places.

This will be a decisive year in this long-running struggle, both for journalists’ safety and the principle of free expression, which the UN Human Rights Committee has identified as a “meta-right”, one on which other basic rights depend.

The outcome lies partly in the hands of the media themselves.




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